Monday, October 21, 2013

Everybody Talks

Monrovia, California

October 21, 2013

There's a famous quote, usually attributed to Mark Twain: "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."  Only the locals in Southern California pay much attention to our weather here, just as we're barely aware, except in a smug way, of the vagaries of the eastern and northern climes.  From everybody else's standpoint our weather is perfect--sunny, warm, dry.  Especially in the winter, when the east and north are snow and ice bound, it's very difficult for folks in other parts of the country to feel much compassion about the comparatively minor meteorological problems in these realms.

But here, people do complain a bit, as they do everywhere else.  The constant is not the weather, or the changes in the weather; rather it's the tendency to be less than happy with what you have, weatherwise.  The idea of "perfect weather" only exists in places where it can be readily contrasted with something less than perfect.  In a very real sense people in places where the weather is harsher and more variable (Minnesota where one of my daughters lives comes to mind) are more easily pleased by minor changes than are the denizens of SoCal.  Give Minnesotans a day in January when the temperature briefly rises above freezing and they'll be moderately cheerful (which is as cheerful as Minnesotans ever get about anything).  The next day, when it reaches a high of 15 degrees Fahrenheit they won't be angry, just resigned to the will of the Almighty and to the belief that it's out of their hands, which, whether you're religious or not, is an eminently sensible attitude.  And Minnesotans are nothing if not sensible, a thing that cannot be said for Southern Californians.  In fact, it's kind of a rarity here.

If it's hot here (as it tends to be from August through about October), people have something to complain about.  You might say it's a dry heat, so it's more tolerable, and that's true to an extent.  But what many folks don't realize is that, like practically everything else in the LA area, the weather is man-made.  So many trees have been planted in Los Angeles County over the last century or so--virtually all of them nonnative species such as eucalyptuses, palm trees, sweetgums, ficuses, and so on--that the area has gone from being essentially a cactus and sagebrush desert, as it was in the beginning, to a comparatively more humid environment.  Relative humidity is still a relative thing, though.  We don't get 90% plus humidity that often, but in truth it can get pretty sweaty, particularly when you compare the area to the less-developed inland regions, extending into the Palm Springs desert and beyond to the Arizona border.

Then again, if it gets cloudy or the temperature dips below 75 degrees during the day, everyone breaks out the hoodies and even those bulky Gore-Tex jackets that make them look like the Michelin man.  Why anyone in Southern California would even own one of those jackets is beyond me, but they sell the hell out of them in the "winter."  And not just to people in the social classes who might fly up to Utah or Colorado to go skiing during the winter.  But mostly people just layer up and hunker down when it's cool.  And by cool I mean cool like that first beautiful day in late April when, in the northeast, you would go outside in your short sleeved shirt to watch the crocuses and tulip shoots and the small patches of snow lingering in the shaded areas.  And God forbid that it should be cloudy, which, by the way, officially constitutes rain, since there isn't much of that.  Easterners should get a kick out of this: the other day it did actually rain for a few minutes, bringing the total rainfall for the year since July 1 up to a grand total of 0.13 inches.  Despite this paucity of moisture, and despite the fact that most of the water in the area is imported from hundreds of miles away, there is barely a nod in the direction of water conservation.   

I was watching a documentary the other day about the homeless of Los Angeles, who aren't much different from the homeless of any other large city, i.e., chiefly mentally ill and/or drug-addicted.  Though it wasn't a bad movie I quit watching after about fifteen minutes because I've spent so much of my life and working career in close proximity to mentally ill and drug and alcohol addicted people, and that just doesn't hold much fascination for me.  Lots of talk, lots of regrets, lots of promises, lots of misery.  Anyway, I do want to mention one thing about the documentary, and that was a comment by a semi-reformed resident of Skid Row who spends his time washing and sweeping the sidewalks, most assuredly a good thing to do, for which he deserves much credit.  It's a lot more than I do for the homeless or for the city.  But what struck me was a comment he made relating to the weather.  He pointed out that since it almost never rains in Los Angeles, the smell of urine and of life sticks to the sidewalks and streets, and nothing gets washed away by itself.  He has to slosh soapy water onto the sidewalks and scrub them with a broom.  So next time you're fighting a rainstorm in, say, Chicago or New York City, remember that it's doing some good beyond just replenishing the aquifers.  It's performing a sort of biblical diluvian function, getting rid of some of the stink of life.  No such luck here in the desert Southwest, which, if it were still really a desert and not an overcrowded city, wouldn't be so bad.

With the exception of Griffith Park and a few of the privileged tree-shrouded enclaves on the northwest side, Los Angeles is an ugly city, made more so when contrasted with the glimpses of natural beauty afforded in the distant hills and mountains and in the occasional patches of pure desert found mostly alongside its dried-out waterways.  Its immediate eastern suburbs along or beside old Route 66 in the San Gabriel Valley--Pasadena, San Marino, Sierra Madre, Arcadia, and my own Monrovia, are quite pretty and charming as suburbs go, but the part of LA I go through to get to downtown, and also the whole south and east sides, are not pretty at all.  Okay, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so I won't say it's positively ugly.  But it is certainly short on charm and on the basics of urban planning.  It's a city of little one and two-story houses and apartments of the mid-twentieth century--squared off stucco and framed bungalows, mostly--slapped together willy nilly up and down steep hillsides and jammed even closer together in the flat areas.  Imagine Garden City or Westland writ much larger, with hills, and you might get a sense of the clutter and architectural vapidity of the city of LA.  There are some exceptions, like the little cluster of skyscrapers that is the downtown civic center, which really doesn't cover that much ground, and the canals of Venice, and of course those tree-shrouded enclaves of the rich and famous in Bel Air, Brentwood, and Beverly Hills.  Los Angeles looks far better at night when filmed from high up in those affluent northern hills, a carpet of light stretching to the sea.  Dim light is flattering, something the city knows well from the movie biz.

Speaking of homeless people in LA, on my way from the parking lot to my volunteer job, walking south up Hill Street from Chinatown, I pass a number of people who are just waking from having slept huddled in the recesses of the infrastructure beneath the Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial and its waterfall (mostly dry) or between the gigantic roots of trees along the edges of the highways.  Some of them stay to panhandle along the street where county and city employees and lawyers pass in droves each day.  I've given names in my mind to a few of them.  There's "I have AIDS--yo tengo SIDA" Man, for instance.  He lies curled up and pathetic, draped around the bottom of a No Parking sign on the sidewalk smack in front of the Stanley Mosk Central LA Superior Court, with a little piece of corrugated cardboard bearing his bilingual message in magic marker and a dirty cup to collect donations.  Thousands of people stream by him each day.  Don't know how much money he takes in.  Then there's "Have Diabetes Please Help" Woman--Diabetes Woman for short--who has a spot staked out right where Hill Street crosses over the Hollywood Freeway, near the ultra-modern Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.  (This reminds us that Los Angeles is a shortened form of its original name, El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles del Rio de Porciuncula, or The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Porciuncula River.  The river was later renamed the Los Angeles River.  Like the Fort Moore Memorial waterfall, it's mostly dry.)

As I have said before in this blog, I have nothing against panhandlers, or beggars, or whatever you choose to call them.  My belief, for what it's worth, is that the most honest way to beg for money is simply to ask for it rather than to attempt to play to patriotism (as in "Homeless Veteran, Please Help"), or to tug at the heartstrings of would-be donors.  At its core panhandling solicits a simple social contract between the taker and the giver.  It says, "I have comparatively little money and you may have more than I do; please share some of yours with me."  I like that.  It's streamlined and straightforward and leftist.  I hate to see it muddled with details.  And spare me the "God Bless You" as I pass by.  I don't care if they use the money to buy booze or drugs or food, shoes or ships or sealing wax.  That's their business, just as it's my business how I use the money I get.

Nevertheless I realize that most panhandlers may be embarrassed to just ask for money straight out, or may have learned that they get more by having a "hook" of some kind in the form of a need-based plea.  But the sign of Diabetes Woman troubled me a little, because (even though it's none of my business) it didn't seem quite compelling enough.  Diabetes, really?  I mean, I know it's a devastating and deadly disease, especially the Type I version of it (from which she probably suffers, given her comparative youth).  Call me calloused, but after all, it's estimated that nearly 10% of the U.S. population has some form of diabetes.

Thus it was that one day, in a George Costanza-Seinfeldian kind of gesture, I stopped in front of Diabetes Woman to have a little chat with her, bending over a bit, since she's always sitting on the ground.  "So," I began, "you have diabetes?"  She replied in the affirmative.  Diabetes Woman is a thin bi-racial woman with painted-on eyebrows and weird yellow-green eyes that give her a distinctly reptilian aspect.  "Do you need money for insulin or other medicines?" I went on.  She said no, not really, that her diabetes was under control.  "Do you suffer from diabetic neuropathy, gangrene, vision problems, or other complications?"  I continued, sounding to myself like a doctor or one of those ambulance-chasing lawyers who advertise on TV.  She said no.  "Are you perhaps in need of a kidney or pancreas transplant?"  Again she shook her head, smiling slightly as she fixed those reptile eyes on me.  She told me she was homeless.  "Well," I went on, "it just seems to me that simply telling people you have diabetes isn't all that likely to get them to donate to you.  How about saying you're homeless?"  I was trying to be helpful, even as I felt myself, through my own intrusiveness, getting sucked into a Larry David script along with the vortex of pent-up anger and instability simmering in her just below the surface.

"Well you're a money-grubbing motherfucker and your mother should have aborted you before you were born," she shot back, "and I don't have to sit here and let you insult me."  She spit the words at me like the green slime those little raptors spat into the eyes of Wayne Knight (the guy who played Newman on Seinfeld) in the movie Jurassic Park.  At this moment I thought very briefly of saying, "Well, you know, back in the late 1940s when I was born abortions weren't as readily available as they are now.  In fact they were illegal all over the country."  But instead I answered calmly, "Well, I think you might be the one who's being insulting now.  I just think you'd get more money if you had a better sign."  Then I proceeded on down to the parking lot in Chinatown.

Two days later I was on the same route, walking to my car, and stopped again in front of Diabetes Woman.  This time before I said a word she threatened to hit me with a blunt baton-like thing about a foot and a half long, which I think was a rolled-up umbrella.  I moved on, and she remained seated, calling after me, "Come back here with your old smelly white ass, and I'll break your leg."  I couldn't help thinking that this wasn't the best attitude to have when soliciting money, but then who am I to say?  We take our panhandlers as we find them, I had learned.

As I walked over the busy 101 Freeway and then Cesar E. Chavez Drive two things came into my mind.  Looking ahead of me, one was a movie quote from a classic LA film noir I often remember when I'm making my way down among the faux Asian storefronts filled with places selling ginseng root and dehydrated fish and other things westerners are not meant to buy.  I thought, "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."

But also, casting my mind back up the hill to Diabetes Woman I couldn't help wondering, "Why would anyone carry an umbrella in Los Angeles?"

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Release The Tigers

Monrovia, California

October 9, 2013

A week or so ago I read in the LA Times of the death of one of my favorite obscure character actors from my youth, a guy named Jay Robinson.  His career peaked early, with his role as the insane and sadistic Emperor Caligula in a pair of "biblical epics," The Robe (1953) and its sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954).  These were cheesy movies at best, the first one featuring Richard Burton as a Roman official and Victor Mature as a defiant Greek slave, both of whom converted to Christianity literally at the feet of the hanging Jesus.  The sequel was carried by Victor Mature, and starred Susan Hayward as Demetrius's love interest and also the wife of old Claudius, who stepped in after Caligula's death.  Claudius didn't care much what Susan Hayward did in her spare time, so she and Demetrius lived it up during Demetrius's mid-movie crisis of faith.  The fact that the dewy-eyed Victor Mature took over from Richard Burton as the star of the second movie gives you an idea of how this sequel, like most sequels, was only intended to keep the pot boiling, and wasn't expected to measure up to the first one.  Despite good solid B-movie performances by the reliable Hayward and Ernest Borgnine as the trainer of the gladiators, the only real standout in the movie was Jay Robinson as the maniacal Caligula.

For some reason I could never quite figure out, The Robe was handled with a great deal more care than was its sequel, and didn't seem to go straight to TV, as did Demetrius and the Gladiators.  It's not that The Robe was that good, even within its genre, which of course included the overwrought likes of The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959).  Nor did Richard Burton's presence in it do much more than lend it a bit of respectability it didn't necessarily deserve.  Burton chewed the scenery as ravenously as did the rest of the cast, with his sonorous and slightly bleating delivery, but the part did earn him a Best Actor nomination that year.  The movie certainly didn't match up to his reputation as the new Shakespearean wunderkind of Hollywood, the younger version of Laurence Olivier.  But I guess maybe the audiences were excited by him.  Victor Mature, on the other hand, was a steady journeyman, never so blessed by the muses as was Burton, and had a lot less to lose and more to gain by starring in the sequel.  He appeared in over sixty movies throughout the 40s and 50s and avoided squandering his talent and fortune on excesses of the flesh, unlike his more touted costar in The Robe.  In fact, Mature retired early to play golf.  He was as good as his name, and lived into old age, always with an insouciant appreciation for the years of fame he did manage to achieve despite his limitations as an actor and his self-parodying matinee idol looks.  Richard Burton, on the other hand, became tabloid fodder, flushing his gifts away with booze and more mediocre scripts than he should have, considering that he did make a few great movies.

But let's get back to Caligula and those tigers.  As a kid my absolute favorite over-the-top performance in the black-and-white world of Saturday afternoon television movies (often hosted by the late great Bill Kennedy) was that of Jay Robinson as Caligula in Demetrius and the Gladiators.  He was so writhingly cruel that you just had to love him, draped in a louche manner over a chair, his head cocked like a mad bird, giving life or death commands to his Praetorian guards.  It was in one of these scenes, when Demetrius was proving himself on the gladiatorial field, that he decided to have done with the worthless Christian by ordering him to fight the ravenous wild beasts who waited behind bars to gnaw their recalcitrant victims to death.  "Release the tigers!" shouted Robinson, in a high whiny fey voice that perfectly suited what you figured a demented young emperor should sound like.  The tigers were duly released, and of course Demetrius dispatched them all, proving himself a formidable fighter while causing Susan Hayward to squirm with dignified desire in her perch opposite that of the emperor.

I've taken a long time to get to the life and death of poor Jay Robinson.  He was born in New York City, the son of a professional dancer mother and a father who was a director of the Van Heusen Shirt Company.  He was bitten by the acting bug and got his start on Broadway before coming west to make it in the movies.  A few years after those brilliant scene-stealing stints as Caligula when he was in his early 20s, rightly regarded today as the peak of his success, he was arrested for possession and sale of heroin, and suffered the consequences, including eventually a 15-month stay in a California prison for failing to appear in court.  While in the joint he worked as a firefighter.  Aside from a few random roles in 60s sitcoms, including a shot or two on Bewitched (as Julius Caesar if I'm not mistaken), he descended into comparative obscurity, working as a short order cook and a veterinarian's assistant between acting gigs.  He appeared in mostly campy roles during the 70s and 80s, including an episode of Star Trek and on the soap opera Days of Our Lives and in one episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century entitled "Planet of the Amazon Women." I'm not sure what he principally did for a living, but maybe that handful of odd roles was enough to keep the wolf away from the door.  It's a pity, really, because if he'd stayed at the top of his game he would have made a good Count Dracula.  Instead he got the minor role of some named Mr. Hawkins in Bram Stoker's Dracula.  Anyway, he died at 83 in his home in Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley on September 27.

The real Caligula's career wasn't much more successful, except of course that he was at least a wealthy emperor for a few years, rather than just playing one on the screen, and got his profile on coins and all that.  After a crazy four years of riding high, he crashed and burned before he turned thirty.  Kind of like Jay Robinson, except that Caligula was assassinated in a plot initiated by his Praetorian guard.  So he didn't get to live on in obscurity, just in infamy.

Jay Robinson claimed that being typecast led him to his heroin use and downfall, a rather poor excuse if you ask me.  But maybe Caligula suffered from a similar ignominy, that is, being typecast.  When you're the latest in a line of dangerous megalomaniacs, it's probably hard to break out of that role.  First there was Julius Caesar, then his adopted son who called himself the Divine Augustus, then Augustus's adopted son Tiberius, and after that Tiberius's great nephew Caligula.

I guess the common theme in the whole story line, from Caligula to Richard Burton to Jay Robinson,  is excesses of the flesh accompanied by ambition and delusions of grandeur.  Ancient Rome and Hollywood have certainly produced more than their share of victims.  Except for old Victor Mature, the Italian immigrant's son, who was pretty much content to rest on his laurels rather than to try to wear them on his head.  Once when rejected for membership in a country club because he was an actor, he said, "I'm not an actor -- and I've got sixty-four films to prove it!"  Today Victor Mature is buried in his home state of Kentucky, under a statue of a weeping Angel of Grief.

Jay Robinson reposes in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills.  The cemetery is just northwest of Griffith Park, down the hill from where a solitary male mountain lion roams at night.  I imagine Jay is in the big mausoleum where some other show biz types, like Liberace and Bette Davis, are entombed.  I'll go looking for him next time I'm out that way.  He'll probably be in one of the more modest drawers, with the likes of George Raft and Sandra Dee and Roy Williams the Big Mooseketeer, a small brass name plate to identify his remains.  But you never know--he might be in a big white marble sarcophagus topped with a statue of Caligula, armor-clad and demoniacally triumphant.  That would be cool.